Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 2

Part 1 here

Trigger warning; discussion of abuse continues

Also I absolutely can’t make the points I’m making without spoiling the crap out of the end, so beware.

In the movie, Andy is repeatedly described as “losing her soul.” Most fans of the movie who I have talked to have accepted that interpretation, but I’ve also known of a few who disagree.  It’s actually quite difficult to name things Andy does that are truly wrong. There is nothing wrong with either developing an interest in fashion, or trying to well at a difficult, demanding job. Stealing an unpublished manuscript is a crime, but given how huge Harry Potter is and that the twins would most likely get their own hardcover copy when the real one comes out, along with tons of merchandise, it is a victimless crime. She feels somewhat attracted to a cute writer who flirts with her, while she’s dating somebody else, but nothing happens until she and her boyfriend split up. In fact, there is only one situation where Andy does anything I can even begin to consider wrong, and its done under extreme coercion.

At one point, Andy’s coworker Emily is sick. Unlike any reasonable boss in the world, Miranda does not send Emily home. In fact, Emily is supposed to accompany Miranda to a gala, where her primary duty will be to remind Miranda of the names of each and every guest. See, Miranda doesn’t want to have to deal with the embarrassment and awkwardness of “sorry, I forgot your name,” but neither does she want to go to the trouble of learning who her own guests are. Instead Emily has to not only work but work late into the night, while she is coughing and sneezing and clinging to tissues like they’re life preservers, or perhaps a talisman of protection against people like Miranda. That’s bad but not as bad as it gets. Miranda tells Andy that even though she had the night off, she has to come to the gala as a backup for Emily. Andy has to spend the rest of the afternoon learning as many names and faces as she can. But you know, sending Emily home entirely and making do with just Andy would be unthinkable.

It's like having Huginn and Muninn, except they are telling me things that I'm perfectly capable of figuring out myself, and one of them should be home.
It’s like Huginn and Muninn, except they are telling me things I’m fully capable of learning myself, and one of them should be home.

During the night, Emily makes one mistake, and Andy covers for her. Miranda’s response is to kick Emily off of fashion week in Paris, in favor of Andy.

This is a big deal because, like everyone else, Emily hates working for Miranda. She experiences daily humiliations, terrifyingly high expectations and verbal abuse. Emily puts up with it because fashion genuinely is her dream. The week in Paris, for Emily, makes all the shit she deals with worth it. Think of how Hogwarts gave Harry the ability to deal with the Dursleys all summer, and imagine that Hogwarts only lasted a week. That’s Paris for Emily.

Miranda makes it clear that if Andy turns down the Paris job, she will get that whole “fired with an incendiary reference” thing that everyone is so scared of.

This whole dialog hinges on a weird contradiction. On the one hand, Miranda claims this isn’t a personal vendetta against Emily, nor is it a way to maintain her image as terrifying and capricious, and thus motivate everyone to continue working themselves to death. Oh no, this is because it is just so important to Miranda that she have the best people on her Paris team, and Andy, not Emily, is the best. And yet, while Andy is so much better than Emily that she is indispensable on the Paris trip, she is not also so much better that it would be stupid to fire her over turning down one opportunity. Its impossible to know what exactly Miranda’s game here is, but whatever it is, my mean-spirited bullshit meter is flashing red.

Andy accepts the job, even though it breaks Emily’s heart, and doing so clearly hurts Andy as well. For the record, coercing somebody into doing something abusive for you is also abuse. Andy is being made an accomplice here, but she is also being victimized. However, character after character holds Andy responsible for what happens, including Miranda.

In a beautiful ironic twist, though, it’s Miranda’s insistence that Andy had a choice that breaks the spell. Andy suddenly decides this career path is no longer worth it, if the price is becoming somebody like Miranda. She ditches her abuser in the middle of the Paris, and everybody in the audience cheers.

As so often happens after abuse, all the worst predictions about what would happen if Andy leaves do not come true. Andy finds a job with a small newspaper, doing the kind of work she wanted to do in the first place, with people who seem to be, you know, reasonable and decent human beings.

This leaves the audience with an interesting question. Was Andy really being corrupted? The movie wants to say yes, but I’m inclined to say no. She’s a victim in this situation, and she consistently tries to do the right thing. Still, within that incorrect characterization of Andy’s situation is a point that I think has some truth to it.

There are two different reactions given to Andy’s character arc. One is “you are changing, right now, for the worse.” This reaction comes from Emily, who gives her a rant that is primarily understandable rage and venting, but also from her friends. I’ll get into that reaction in the third and final piece of this series. The other one is that she is nice, that she hasn’t done anything wrong, but that she is on a path that will inevitably turn her into somebody she doesn’t want to be. The first person who gives her this perspective is the cute writer. The second is Miranda herself, in the dialog that convinces Andy to ditch the job.

There is something interesting going on in the culture of people who work with Miranda. Everybody gives in to her. Everybody treats her behavior as normal, defends her as a woman whose abusive treatment of her employees is the reason she is so powerful, and even idolizes her. In short, there is not a person there who does not demonstrate some Stockholm-y behaviors. Sometimes, this translates into mimicking Miranda’s behaviors. As I said last time, when Andy starts work everyone brutally mocks her size and her clothing. Emily, the character we feel so bad for when she misses out on Paris, is the primary perpetrator.

"I'm going to hate you on sight because that distracts me from the misery of my own existence, ok?"
“I’m going to hate you on sight because that distracts me from the misery of my own existence, ok?”

This is called identification with the aggressor, where mimicking an abuser’s behavior makes the victim feel more powerful and relieves anxiety. All this makes it even easier for Andy to get sucked into that mindset. No doubt every year newbies come to Runway, passionate about fashion and hopeful about their futures, only to have their spirits crushed, whether they stay or leave.

Even characters who are nicer than Emily still reinforce the abuse in smaller ways. For example Nigel, who is the one who befriends Andy and actually helps her fit in, also gives speeches justifying the importance of the work they do and belittling Andy’s complaints.

In this scene he is defending Miranda. By the end of the movie Miranda will have ruined his life.
In this scene he is defending Miranda. By the end of the movie Miranda will have ruined his life.

This is something I have also observed in both of the verbally abusive environments I’ve experienced (one directly, one from the sidelines). It isn’t just about what the main abuser does. It’s also about what the people around them do. It’s about the fellow victims who don’t want to believe they are victims, so they gaslight anyone who dares suggest that something twisted might be going on. It’s about the justifications that get passed around. It’s about the creation of a myth that “everyone who would put us down just doesn’t get how wonderful we are.”

As I mentioned in the previous piece, Miranda regularly violates laws and basic ethics with her employees. So why isn’t she facing any lawsuits? I’m sure part of it is that people are scared. No doubt her lawyers are the best money can buy. Still, there isn’t even a mention of anybody trying, even as they complain about her and share stories that would make any competent HR department weep. They could pool their resources on a lawsuit, and also dump documentation of past abuses on the press. Miranda is powerful, but so is public outrage, and the employees at Runway could do some serious damage. But they aren’t going to do that, because they don’t see her as their abuser.

Individually, everyone is only trying to survive a terrible environment. Collectively, they have created an environment where the abuse of everybody else is enabled. Is that corruption?

I think that’s the wrong question. Wrong here meaning “unlikely to actually help people get out of abuse.” Because, see, stigmatizing people who are in abusive situations does not help them get out at all. It only makes them more afraid to seek help. On the other hand, I don’t think ignoring the role their choices make helps either. People are more likely to take control of their lives if their ability to make choices is affirmed, just as Andy leaves Miranda when Miranda emphasizes to Andy that she is making choices to get ahead. But going back to the original hand, pretending that anybody with sufficient force of will can break free of their situation without any consequences… that’s a fantasy.

I think there are two right questions. The first is “how can we better teach each other to recognize abusive situations?” The second is “how can people outside the situation offer support to people who are being abused?” I’ll talk about both of those in my final piece, which should be up shortly.

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3 thoughts on “Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 2

  1. Oh well said. It is possible to do the job of an EIC wi th out being a total and abusive bitch. The defence of Wintour by so many toadying journalists and fashionistas was shocking and sad at the time. Note that no one saidshe was a nice person they just defended her nasty ways….hoping to please i guess….and that is how abuse helps to perpetuate itself. Sorry i know this is about the book but the dynamics are the same and its an important issue. How can we ever have a decent world when the people in power are psychopathic sadists????

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    1. Very true. I sometimes read stuff about how psychopathy may be an advantage in some fields like business and politics and I just think… no. It may help them get ahead, but just because you aren’t violent doesn’t mean you can’t cause real harm to the people around you. A corrupt and callous boss is a bad thing. Just look at the financial mess our economy has been in over the last decade, and tell me that it’s good to have politicians and executives who don’t care about the impact their actions have on others.

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